There Are No Writers Here


I’ve long noted that the civic identity or culture of many places seems to be a cipher. What is our identity as a city? is a question frequently asked. And one that needs to be. Cities will succeed best when they undertake policies that are true to the place. To most successfully build or rebuild a place, it’s important to articulate that civic identity and work with it, not against it.

Of course some of that happens by the very fact that the people who live in a place are steeped in its culture. But a lack of self-awareness can be a big liability. As the Greek oracle noted, the first call is to “Know Thyself.”

But this is hard to do, both for people and places. It’s hard to give a succinct description of the culture of say Cleveland, Columbus, or Cincinnati, but visitors to those cities will be instantly struck by how starkly different they are.

To unearth and understand the culture and identity of a place requires going on an anthropological or archeological mission deep into the soil of a city, with a proper balance of affection and detachment.  This takes time to do, and a lot of my own writing on various places would certainly be much better if I had time to embed in them and understand them more deeply.

One big advantage larger cities have is that they have a much larger supply of journalists and writers than smaller ones, and these are the very people who are most likely to investigate, unearth, and articulate that culture.

New York in an embarrassment of riches in this regard. Practically every day someone is writing something interesting about the city. Just today, for example, City Journal published a piece about the layers of New York history represented in Straus Park. And Urban Omnibus had one about finding New York in West Side Story.

Back when the mega-bookstore chains were still going strong, I always liked to visit one when I came to a city, and go to the “local interest” section. In too many places, the titles on offer were pathetic. A number of large cities don’t even seem to have one high quality history on offer.

The biggest cities, by contrast, had sections that were disproportionately large even relative to their larger population. There have been a massive number of great books written about Chicago, for example, and the Chicago section in the old downtown Borders was correspondingly huge.

You can learn a lot about a city just by taking a look at the local interest section in a bookstore.

Unfortunately, just when this kind of writing is greatly needed, the number of people who might be writing it have been shrinking.  Nieman Lab just published an article talking about the increasing concentration of media in New York, DC, and Los Angeles, noting, “[T]he increase in concentration is unmistakable. Journalism jobs are leaving the middle of the country and heading for the coasts.”

What reporting remains is often done by inexperienced reporters with little tie to a community. Chains like Gannett seem to deliberately practice rotating reporters and even columnists from city to city, preventing them from really getting a place. Few of them have any real knowledge of even fairly recent history.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you do go looking for books about smaller (but often still sizable) places, you can sometimes find books that are collections of pieces from long gone columnists.

There has been a ton of money and effort poured in supporting artists and other “creative class” type endeavors in cities, but remarkably little financing of high quality writing about cities, their past, and their culture.

By its very nature this work is often very time consuming and with limited, highly localized market appeal. It can require a ton of research. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the best of it is produced by writers who take it on as a side project while doing their “day job.”  Writers are often almost compelled to write, after all. For example, my colleague Stephen Eide typically writes studies about municipal finance, but also wrote an essay about the Lorelei fountain commemorating Heinrich Heine in the Bronx.

Cities without a large resident base of writers are at a disdvantage here. And it appears to be growing by the day, yet another example of the bifurcation of society.

This particularly local concern that is highly unlikely to be produced by the market is one local philanthropists will need to take on if they wish to fill this gap.  It is perhaps hyperbole so that that there are no more writers in these cities, but there certainly aren’t enough of them.

This piece first appeared at

Aaron M. Renn is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He focuses on ways to help America’s cities thrive in an ever more complex, competitive, globalized, and diverse twenty-first century. During Renn’s 15-year career in management and technology consulting, he was a partner at Accenture and held several technology strategy roles and directed multimillion-dollar global technology implementations. He has contributed to The Guardian,, and numerous other publications. Renn holds a B.S. from Indiana University, where he coauthored an early social-networking platform in 1991.


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hyperbole vs. effort

While "local interest" has indeed disappeared from bookstores, it is mostly because bookstores themselves have disappeared, replaced by big global chains selling booklike objects. As a writer I've found intensely local and interesting writing in most every city I visit without a lot of trouble, but I long ago stopped looking in traditional distribution channels - bookstores, newspapers. These are hopeless places.

You cite the phenomenon correctly that, for the general reader, "local color" is subsumed by the global media. We get gigabytes of writing about New York every day (helped by the fact that New Yorkers seem to be a singularly self-absorbed lot). For people unfamiliar with America, we only really have one city - New York - and the rest of the country is a suburb of little note. Sadly, perhaps, for New Yorkers, this conceit is largely ignored by the rest of the country.

This star system, which has infected every other form of commerce, guarantees that whatever sells - interesting stories about New York, for example - we get lots more of. Interesting stories about Jerome or Hannibal Square become risky for publication and consequently rarer. The general reader has to make far more effort to find them.

As we transition away from bookstore-and-newspaper into whatever the new form of information-sharing is, the star system will prevail and local color is cast deeper in the shadows. It's discouraging to read "there are no writers here"...maybe I should be writing about New York.

In the meantime, civic identity is also deeply troubled. The glossier and more booster-y the magazines get, the deeper the malaise roiling around under there.

Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP
Adjunct Professor, Rollins College
Senior Designer, VOA Associates Inc.